What Past and Present Communities Can Teach New Communities

by Raven MoonRaven

from Communities Magazine, Fall 2017


I was inspired to write this by a link I was sent to an article entitled “Utopia Inc.” It was subtitled: “Most utopian communities are, like most start-ups, short-lived. What makes the difference between failure and success?” (Find it at aeon.co/essays/like-start-ups-most-intentional-communities-fail-why.)

As someone who is interested in starting communities (and has started communities), I’m well aware of the precariousness of new communities. What can folks who are trying to start new communities learn from the communities of the past as well as those around now that have lasted?

First of all, as the author of the online article (Alexa Clay) points out, 90 percent or so of new communities fail—but that’s also true of business start-ups. Starting a new venture is always risky. However, as the author also points out, many of these communities weren’t very well put together to start with. She goes on to say that “intentional communities and utopias can serve as short-lived petri dishes for emergent culture.” This is very similar to my personal view of communities as laboratories for social change. In communities, we see what works and doesn’t work. So looking at other communities can help us decide to whether it makes sense to try something or not.

In looking at past communities, Ms. Clay talks about Fruitlands, which is my favorite example of how not to start a community. The founders (Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane) mandated a very strict and rigid routine. The Wikipedia article on Fruitlands claims, “Diet was usually fruit and water; many vegetables—including carrots, beets, and potatoes—were forbidden because they showed a lower nature by growing downward.” There were no formal admission requirements or procedures to join the community and they attracted quite a few men (apparently Alcott’s and Lane’s wives were the only women) who do not seem to have been the most stable characters. I think that one of the biggest problems was (quoting Wikipedia again): “many of the men of the commune spent their days teaching or philosophizing instead of working in the field.” Fruitlands lasted only seven months. Given how it was structured, I’m surprised it lasted that long. But we now know that you can’t run a farm by discussing philosophy.

The author also talks about New Harmony and she points out that (not that different from Fruitlands), “Of its population of 800, only 140 were adept at working in local industry, and just 36 were skilled farmers. The community was far too open and indiscriminate in its invitation, allowing anyone to join, and attracting a lot of free-riders without the necessary skills or appetite for hard work.” New Harmony lasted two years.

When Alexa Clay looks at success stories, she points to spiritual communities such as the Shakers, Quakers, and Amish. One thing that I notice about all of them is a willingness to work hard.

One community that I’m surprised she doesn’t mention is Oneida, which lasted a

Oneida Community
A building at the Oneida Community between 1865 and 1875

good 30 years, and embraced a very communal structure and complex sexual structure in the 19th century, and, from something I read, was missed by many of its members after it was gone. Unsurprisingly, they had a good work ethic. (From Wikipedia: “All Community members were expected to work, each according to his or her abilities…. Community members rotated through the more unskilled jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries.”)

A spiritual community that has lasted much longer is the Amana Colony, which was founded in 1859, and continued communally until 1932, when the community split into a spiritual “Church Society” and a for-profit company which continues to own much of the land. Again (from Wikipedia): “For eighty years, the Amana Colony maintained an almost completely self-sufficient local economy, importing very little from the industrializing American economy. The Amanians were able to achieve this independence and lifestyle by adhering to the specialized crafting and farming occupations that they had brought with them from Europe. Craftsmen passed their skills and techniques on from one generation to the next. They used hand, horse, wind, and water power, and made their own furniture, clothes, and other goods.” Amana refrigerators were a legacy of this community.

These communities come from what I think of the first wave of communes, that occurred during the 19th century, mostly between the 1840s and 1890s. The next major wave of community building occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s. Most of these communities are gone.

Ms. Clay does mention Findhorn, which began evolving in 1962 but was established as an official foundation in 1972. She quotes social entrepreneur Kate Sutherland who said: “It’s not utopia. It’s microcosm. Everything that’s in the outer world is there—marginalisation, addiction, poverty, sexual issues, power. Communities are just fractals of society.” However for Sutherland the difference between Findhorn and the rest of the planet boiled down to “good will and a clear commitment to waking up” or as she said, “People are willing to look at their stuff.”

However there are some other communities from the ’60s and ’70s that are still around. One of them is Twin Oaks, which is turning 50 this year, has almost 100 members who live very communally, and appears to be going strong. And, yes, they have a strong work ethic.

Twin Oaks hammocks and tofu, Oneida silverware, Amana refrigerators, Shaker furniture, Amish farming. Alexa Clay notes: “Perhaps the irony is that many of the administrative and managerial forces that individuals are running away from within mainstream society are exactly the organisational tools that would make intentional communities more resilient: that regardless of how much intentional communities with utopian aims seek to step to one side of worldly affairs, they succeed or fail for the very same pragmatic reasons that other human enterprises—notably businesses and start-ups—succeed or fail.”

But it’s not just about the willingness to work hard. It’s about building relationships, looking at your stuff (as Kate Sutherland said), and willingness to listen to each other. What amazes me, as someone trying to start community, is how many people still think just having a good idea is enough to build a community.

Unless we are willing to learn from other communities, both past and present, the failure rate of new communities isn’t going to decline.
Raven MoonRaven lives at the Ganas community in New York City and works with the Point A project  to start new egalitarian, income-sharing communities in the city. He also co-manages the Commune Life blog which focuses on the diversity of egalitarian, income-sharing communities.

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What Past and Present Communities Can Teach New Communities

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